Electric battery maker A123 Systems‘ (NASDAQ:AONE) recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is just the latest in a laundry list of negative headlines marring electric vehicles’ technological march.
General Motors (NYSE:GM) has twice suspended production of its electric hybrid Chevy Volt this year as inventory piled up. Meanwhile, sales of the Nissan (PINK:NSANY) Leaf plug-in have dropped 28% year-over-year through September. The Fisker Karma luxury plug-in was panned by Consumer Reports. And a number of automakers have instead focused on improving other fuel technologies rather than deal with electric batteries.
All told, President Barack Obama’s goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 has been only 5% realized since 2011.
It’s a shaky time for the EV frontier, so naturally, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) — the premier name in electric vehicles — has been put into the spotlight. The luxury automaker’s shares are roughly flat year-to-date amid both successes and setbacks to its small fleet of vehicles, and it faces a nation that has been sluggish to adopt EV technology overall.
Which leaves investors stuck with the following question: Is Tesla fated to the same eventual petering out of A123 as consumers shrug and embrace other technologies? Or is EV truly the future — and one that Tesla shareholders can ride to electric gains?
Two InvestorPlace writers who sit on opposite sides of the fence might be able to help you decide.
The Bulls: Tesla’s Leader Is One of a Kind
By Jim Woods
In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say I’ve actually driven Tesla’s game-changing Roadster. I’ve also actually met with and interviewed the company’s impressive CEO, Elon Musk.
Now, I suspect that either of these two stimulating experiences on their own would tend to engender a tremendous bias in favor of Tesla, but that’s not why I am firmly in the bull camp when it comes to the company’s growth prospects, or its share price outlook going forward.
My bullish bias has more to do with the real positive factors that lead me to believe this company will continue to be the hottest growth story in the auto industry for years to come.
There is nothing more powerful than a new company with a cool new product that caters to a well-heeled demographic less concerned with cost than it is with product quality. This is precisely what has made the all-electric automaker a favorite among sophisticated, luxury vehicle buyers. It’s also what has made Tesla shares a hot — yet admittedly volatile — stock during its past two-plus years of public trade.
In fact, since its June 2010 debut, the stock has accelerated more than 48%; however, that road higher has been anything but a smooth, steady climb. The recent trend in the stock has been lower, as there’s been a tremendous amount of short interest. This level of short interest didn’t go unnoticed by Elon Musk. In an interview with Liz Claman of Fox Business Network, Musk made a forceful statement about the high number of investors who hold short positions in TSLA shares (emphasis mine):
“I think it’s very unwise to be shorting Tesla. I think there’s a tsunami of hurt coming for those holding a short position, and it’s going to be very unpleasant. I advise people to exit while there is time.”
This kind of statement regarding your company’s stock is extremely rare from a CEO, but that’s just the kind of person at the helm of Tesla. In fact, the business acumen and vision possessed by Musk is one big reason why I am bullish on Tesla, both as a company and as a stock.
Already, Musk has made the new Model S sedan one of the most highly anticipated vehicles ever, and the company continues to see order growth with every quarter. In fact, Tesla continues to have a huge backlog of orders for the electric sports sedan. That order growth also is reflected in the growth of the company, which has hired more than 1,000 workers during the past eight months, and now employs approximately 3,000.
The bottom line here is that despite the growing pains associated with a new technology, and despite the politically charged atmosphere that has caused Tesla to be mentioned by name during the first presidential debate, I suspect Tesla will continue to be a stellar growth story in the auto space. As such, look for the share price to continue its long-term trend higher.
The Bears: Tesla Can Sell — It Just Can’t Sell Enough
By James Brumley
If investors got paid with “cool,” then shareholders of Tesla stock already would have been paid a mint, with more on the way. Unfortunately for them, the only thing that actually pays the bills is money, or profits — one thing that’s not on the visible horizon for the electric vehicle manufacturer.
It’s doubtful Tesla Motors ever thought its Roadster would be a huge mainstream success. Then again, that was never the point. The vehicle (which looks like a Lotus, handles like a Ferrari and comes with a $110,000 price tag) was meant to get attention, and serve as a proof-of-concept for electric vehicles.
And it has done the job. Now something of a household name, Tesla is moving on to something more practical and marketable to consumers — an all-electric sedan, just called the Model S.
With four doors, a trunk and a base price starting at $49,000, the basic Model S clearly is an easier sell to the average consumer than a sports car would be. But, there’s the rub. While the electric sedan might be infinitely more marketable than Tesla’s high-performance sports car, it remains considerably less marketable than comparable cars — electric or otherwise — to the average consumer.
For starters, while it’s always nicer to get from point A to point B in style (and all of Tesla’s cars just ooze class), the average consumer looking to cut back on the emission of greenhouse gases also tends to be a value-oriented consumer. Why spend a minimum of $49,000 on a vehicle — nice as it might be — when the next generation of the all-electric Nissan Leaf is going to be priced in the low $30s? The Chevy Volt also is apt to come down in price as time moves ahead, from the current cost in the high $30s to something on par with the Leaf.
For those consumers who are willing to spend at least $49,000 on a vehicle — and as much as $70,000 for just the basic sedan — it’s not as if the competition to worry about is the Leaf, or the Volt, or the upcoming electric version of the Ford (NYSE:F) Focus.
At that price point, Audis and Mercedes are on the table. They might not be electric vehicles, but electric or not, they can be awfully tempting to a potential car-buyer. (It’s amazing how “being green” can become much less important when behind the wheel of an Audi A6 sedan, which more than holds its own against the Tesla Model S sedan in terms of price as well as performance.)
All that said, with lower-priced competition on one side and luxury competition on the other, Tesla’s biggest hurdle might not be another automaker at all. Rather, it might simply be the fact that Tesla vehicles are still all-electric vehicles, which come with a host of logistical headaches most consumers just don’t want to deal with.
One of them is the perception of a limited driving range. Tesla’s top-tier battery option offers up to 300 miles’ worth of driving distance, and to the company’s credit, the vehicle can be plugged into any standard electrical outlet. Until outlets are available in the middle of mall parking lots and in parking garages, though, the vehicles just aren’t quite as flexible as needed for most consumers — and certainly not compelling when the price tag can get more than halfway to six figures.
Oh, Tesla will find thousands of buyers for its vehicles. In fact, it already has. But it must find tens of thousands of buyers to have a real shot at turning a decent profit. That’s an awfully tall order — especially knowing the lower-end EVs aren’t even selling all that well despite being considerably more affordable.